gelling agent for use in incendiary devices

Napalm is a mixture of a gelling agent and a volatile petrochemical. It is a flammable liquid (liquid that is easy to burn) that has been used in war. When it is mixed with gasoline, the thickener makes a sticky gel that is easy to burn, and burns for a long time. A team of Harvard chemists in U.S. made napalm during World War II. The team leader was Louis Fieser. The name napalm comes from the ingredients that were first used to make it: coprecipitated aluminum salts of naphthenic and palmitic acids.[1]

A simulation of a napalm explosion at an air show in 2003. Inside the bomb is a mix of napalm-B - f and gasoline.

One of the major problems of the first fluids used for lighting fires (such as those used in flamethrowers) was that they splashed and drained too easily. Flamethrowers that use a gasoline gel can shoot farther and are more useful. Gasoline gel was hard to make because it used natural rubber, which was in high demand and expensive. Napalm was much cheaper. It solved the problems involved with rubber-based things made to cause fire.[1]

Nowadays, napalm is mostly made of benzene and polystyrene, and is known as napalm-B.[1]

Napalm was used in flamethrowers and firebombs by the U.S. and allied forces. Napalm is made to burn at a specific rate and stick to materials. This is done by mixing different amounts of napalm and other materials. Another useful (and dangerous) effect, mostly in its use in bombs, was that napalm takes the oxygen out of the air and makes large amounts of carbon monoxide that suffocates people. Napalm bombs were used in the Vietnam War to clear landing zones for helicopters.[1]

Napalm was a 20th-century invention. However, it is a part of a long history of incendiary devices in warfare. Historically, it was mostly liquids that were used (see Greek fire). A flammable liquid fuel weapon which can be held by people, the flamethrower was created in World War I by the Germans. Many other flamethrowers were soon made by other sides in the conflict.[1]

Usage in warfare

Riverboat of the U.S. Brownwater Navy shooting a burning mix of napalm from a flamethrower in Vietnam

On July 17, 1944, napalm bombs were dropped for the first time by American P-38 pilots on a fuel storehouse at Coutances, near St. Lô, France.[2] Napalm bombs were first used in the Pacific Theatre during the Battle of Tinian by Marine pilots. Its use was made difficult by problems with mixing, fusing and the release mechanisms.[3] In World War II, Allied forces bombed cities in Japan with napalm, and used it in bombs and flamethrowers in Germany and the Japanese-held islands. It was used by the Greek army against communist guerrilla fighters during the Greek Civil War, by United Nations forces in Korea, by Mexico in the late 1960s against guerrilla fighters in Guerrero and by the United States during the Vietnam War.

The most well-known method of using napalm for war is from air-dropped incendiary bombs. A lesser-known method is flame throwers. Flamethrowers use a thinner version of the same fuel to destroy prepared locations of guns, bunkers and cave hideouts. U.S. Marines fighting on Guadalcanal found them very effective against Japanese positions. The Marines used fire as a weapon to cause damage and as a psychological weapon. People have a natural fear of fire. They found that Japanese soldiers would abandon positions when napalm was used. Prisoners of war confirmed that they were scared of napalm more than any other weapon thrown at them.

Napalm became one of the more used weapons of the Korean War. Pilots returning from the war zone often said that they would rather have a couple of gasoline tanks full of napalm to drop than any other weapon, bombs, rockets or guns. The U.S. Air Force and Navy used napalm with great effect against all types of targets including troops, tanks, buildings and even rail road tunnels. The fear napalm had on the enemy became obvious when North Korean troops began to surrender to aircraft flying overhead. Pilots noted they saw surviving enemy troops waving white flags on following passes after dropping napalm. The pilots radioed to ground troops and the North Koreans were captured.[4]

Napalm has been used recently in wartime by or against: Iran (1980–88), Israel (1967, 1982), Nigeria (1969), Brazil (1972), Egypt (1973), Cyprus (1964, 1974), Argentina (1982), Iraq (1980–88, 1991, 20th March 2003 – 15th December 2011), Serbia (1994), Turkey (1963, 1974, 1997), Angola, United States.

In some cases, napalm disables and kills its victims very quickly. Those who do survive suffer up to 5th degree burns. These damage parts of the skin which do not have pain receptors. However, victims who suffer 2nd degree burns from splashed napalm will be in a lot of pain.[1]

Philip Jones Griffiths described its use in Vietnam:

NAPALM. The most effective "anti-personnel" weapon, it is euphemistically described as "unfamiliar cooking fluid" by those apologists for American military methods. They automatically attribute all napalm cases to domestic accidents caused by the people using gasoline instead of kerosene in their cooking stoves. Kerosene is far too expensive for the peasants, who normally use charcoal for cooking. The only "cooking fluid" they know is very "unfamiliar" – it is delivered through their roofs by U.S. planes.

"Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine," said Phan Thị Kim Phúc, a napalm bombing survivor known from a famous Vietnam War photograph. "Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius."[5]

Phuc had third-degree burns to half her body and was not expected to live. Thanks to assistance from South Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut, and after surviving a 14-month hospital stay and 17 operations, she became an outspoken peace activist.

International law does not prohibit the use of napalm or other incendiaries against military targets,[5] but use against civilian populations was banned by the United Nations' inhumane weapons convention (often referred to as the CCW) in 1981. Protocol III of the CCW restricts the use of incendiary weapons (not only napalm), but a number of states have not accepted all of the protocols of the CCW. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, states are considered a party to the convention, which entered into force as international law in December 1983, if they ratify at least two of the five protocols. The United States, for example, is a party to the CCW but did not sign Protocol III.[6]

An Ecuadorian air force IAI Kfir aircraft drops napalm on a target range during the joint US and Ecuadorian Exercise BLUE HORIZON.

Reports by the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that napalm was used in the Iraq War by US forces.[7] The U.S. Department of Defense denied this. In August 2003, the San Diego Union Tribune said that U.S. Marine pilots and their commanders confirmed the use of Mark 77 firebombs on Iraqi Republican Guards during the start of combat. Official denials of the use of 'napalm' were disingenuous. The Mk 77 bomb that was in service at this time, the Mk 77 Mod 5, did not use actual napalm (e.g. napalm-B). The last U.S. bomb to use actual napalm was the Mark 77 Mod 4, the last of which were destroyed in March 2001.[8] The substance used now is a different incendiary mixture. It is still a controversial incendiary, and can still be referred to colloquially as 'napalm.'

"We napalmed both those (bridge) approaches," said Col. Randolph Alles in a recent interview. "Unfortunately, there were people there because you could see them in the (cockpit) video." (...) "They were Iraqi soldiers there. It's no great way to die," he added. (...) The generals love napalm. ... It has a big psychological effect." - San Diego Union-Tribune, August 2003[9]

The Mk-77 firebombs used in the Gulf were kerosene based. It is a napalm-like liquid in its effect.[1]

Recipes how to make napalm-like substances can be found on the Internet. Very often, the recipes say that they will make a thick substance using gasoline, with soap or polystyrene as a thickening agent. People following these instructions often handle the substance improperly and cause accidents. Making incendiary devices is illegal in many countries.


Napalm bombs explode after being dropped from a Republic of Korea Air Force F-4E Phantom II aircraft during a live-fire exercise.

Napalm usually has gasoline with thickening agents. The first thickeners were soaps, aluminium, and magnesium palmitates and stearates. Depending on how much thickener is added, the resulting viscosity can range between syrupy liquid and thick rubbery gel. The content of long hydrocarbon chains makes the material highly hydrophobic (resistant to wetting with water). It is difficult to extinguish (remove fire). Thickened fuel also bounces better, so it is better for missions in urban places.

There are two types of napalm: oil-based with aluminium soap thickener, and oil-based with polymeric thickener ("napalm-B").

The United States military uses three types of thickeners: M1, M2, and M4.

  • The M1 Thickener (Mil-t-589a), chemically a mixture of 25% wt. aluminium naphthenate, 25% aluminium oleate, and 50% aluminium laurate, (or, according to other sources, aluminium stearate soap) is a highly hygroscopic coarse tan-colored powder. As the water content lowers the quality of napalm, thickener from open containers should not be used later. It is not in the US Army inventory any more as it was replaced with M4.
  • The M2 Thickener (Mil-t-0903025b) is a whitish powder similar to M1, with added devolatilized silica and anti-caking agent.
  • The M4 flame fuel thickening compound (Mil-t-50009a), hydroxyl aluminium bis( 2-ethylhexanoate) with anti-caking agent, is a fine white powder. It is less hygroscopic than M1 and opened containers can be opened and closed and also used within one day. About half the amount of M4 is needed for the same effect as of M1.

A later type of napalm, napalm-B, also called "super napalm", has low-octane gasoline, benzene and polystyrene in it. It was used in the Vietnam War. Napalm B burns for up to 10 minutes with fewer fireballs. This is different than conventional napalm, which burns for only 15–30 seconds. It also sticks better to surfaces, and can destroy things better. It is not as easy to light. This lowers the number of accidents caused by soldiers smoking. It gives a unique smell when it burns.

Starting in the early 1990s, various websites including The Anarchist Cookbook advertised recipes for homemade napalm. These recipes were predominantly equal parts gasoline and styrofoam. This mixture closely resembles that of napalm-B, but lacks benzene.

Napalm reaches burning temperatures of approximately 1,200 °C (2,200 °F). Other additives can be added, e.g. powdered aluminium or magnesium, or white phosphorus.

In the early 1950s, Norway developed its own napalm, based on fatty acids in whale oil. The reason for this development was that the American-produced thickening agent performed rather badly in the cold Norwegian climate. The product was known as Northick II.[10]


Napalm itself became well known by the American public after it was used in the Vietnam war. Since then, it has been mentioned in the media and arts many times. Some of the examples are:

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 "Napalm".
  3. De Chant, John A. (1947). Devilbirds. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. p. 155.
  4. Naval Aviation News (1951-05-01). Napalm Fire Bombs. Washington D.C.: Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department. pp. 8–11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu. University of Connecticut Advance. Napalm Survivor Tells of Healing After Vietnam War Archived 2020-09-25 at the Wayback Machine. November 8, 2004.
  6. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-10-15. Retrieved 2007-04-10.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2007-04-10.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. "MK-77 - Dumb Bombs".
  9. "The San Diego Union-Tribune - San Diego, California & National News".
  10. "Norwaves Volume 5, Number 43, 1997". Archived from the original on 2006-11-14. Retrieved 2007-04-10.
  11. "Chuck Palahniuk - Author of Fight Club".

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